Australian researchers are hoping to develop a swab test to predict which women will give birth prematurely.
In Australia, up to 10 per cent of pregnant women will experience spontaneous premature labour but currently doctors have no way of knowing who is at risk.
Globally, about 15 million babies are born premature each year and more than a million die as a result.
The Predicting Preterm Labour study will test more than 3000 Melbourne women over three years for protein biomarkers to check how closely they are associated with impending labour.
Scientists from the University of Melbourne-Carmentix collaboration have already identified several biomarkers associated with labour.
The study involving women planning to give birth at either the Royal Women's Hospital or the Mercy Hospital for Women in Melbourne will zero in on the most "promising" of those biomarkers.
With no drug available to stop labour, such a test would enable clinicians to offer potentially life-saving care to mothers and babies, says University of Melbourne researcher and obstetrician Dr Di Quinzio.
"To reliably know of likely pre-term labour beforehand would offer so much hope because even predicting or delaying labour by a few days or weeks and thereby allowing adequate time to prepare the baby for life outside the womb can make a huge difference."
Australian Associated Press